Online agencies promise to help citizen photographers get paid

If the explosion in digital cameras and cameraphones makes everyone a potential on-the-spot news photographer, doesn’t it follow that this army of “citizen photographers” would need an agency to help them get paid for their photos? That’s the thinking of a trio of startups that have been birthed in the wake of the July 7 London bombings, where cameraphones and videophones captured the first indelible media images.

Scoopt, based in Glasgow, Scotland; Cell Journalist, based in Nashville, Tenn.; and Spy Media, in San Jose, Calif., all are hoping to represent this growing class of amateur photographers by letting anyone upload photos that are then peddled to media outlets.

Each service offers a different deal, but the idea is the same: Citizen photogs shouldn’t just give their work away on Flickr and to media websites; they deserve the same payment as professionals get. But these new services will have to prove that there are enough newsworthy photos to support such a service. And they’ll have the huge task of vetting and filtering material, while also trying to squeeze money out of increasingly cash-poor media companies.

Of the three startups, Scoopt was first to market, and has already placed two photos and one video in the British press. One was a shot of the aftermath of a car chase, another was video from a commuter train fire, and the third was a shot from supermodel Jodie Kidd’s wedding.

Scoopt lets anyone upload as many photos as they want for free, and then splits the proceeds from media sales 50/50 with clients — the same rate as most professional photo agencies pay. Scoopt takes a three-month exclusive right to sell what it deems newsworthy photos, though more often the site offers non-exclusive contracts so the shutterbug can post the photo on their blog or elsewhere.

Scoopt founder and managing director (the UK equivalent of CEO) Kyle MacRae told me via e-mail that this is not a business that can thrive on automation. He said Scoopt spends a lot of time coaching users via e-mail and the phone, and also has hired veteran journalist Neil Michael as sales manager.

“We also work very VERY hard to sell material,” MacRae said. “I honestly don’t believe that there are any shortcuts. Much as I’d love to stick images in a gallery and wait for media buyers to come along and pick them up, it’s simply not going to happen. Or rather, it might work for low-value stock images but that’s already a saturated market. With news, you have to be on the ball and you have to sell actively into the media.”

Cell Journalist is still building up its image library before the site starts selling photos to the media, according to founder and president Parker Polidor. Cell Journalist is free for any photographer, and the site takes 96-hour exclusive rights to the images. It will pay photographers a flat $50 fee for each sale of the image.

“We’re going after smaller local markets,” Polidor told me. “I’m in Nashville, and we have The Tennessean [newspaper] and other local affiliates who are interested in getting these images for their local audience. I would love to get images of national or international events — it would be a dream come true — but honestly, those images are few and far between. But we do want images from local events, which happen on a much more regular basis.”

Spy Media is the most recent entry into the online photo-brokering field, though it is trying to operate as more of a photo community. For now anyone can upload photos for free, though when the site officially launches on Nov. 1, there will likely be a $1 upload fee per image, according to the company. Photographers can set whatever price they want, and buyers can search and pay for images. The site will take a 35 percent cut of each sale. The startup is being run by father-son team Tom and Bryan Quinn. Bryan is the 22-year-old son of Tom, a former president of high-tech company Novell.

Bryan Quinn, whose senior thesis project at the University of the Pacific was a blueprint for the company, told me that 60 percent of photographers using the site were actually professionals who wanted to sell leftover photos from jobs — but where the photographers retained the license. Quinn said that Spy Media would offer a service for photo editors by making photos searchable by location and description.

“No editor has time to check out every personal website, and then call the photographer and negotiate a price,” Quinn said. “It takes way too long. No editor is going to be proactive. But you can go on to Spy Media, and search a radius of 50 miles from where you are. You can search your location to find photos. That takes an editor a minute.”

Is there a business there?

Despite the buzz around citizen photographers and their ability to snap photos at the right place at the right time, some old-line photographers are skeptical that these agencies will have enough newsworthy material to support their businesses.

Longtime photojournalist Dirck Halstead is a senior fellow in photojournalism at the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin as well as editor and publisher of The Digital Journalist. He was pessimistic about the chances for these nouveau agencies to succeed.

“I think it is a very marginal business,” Halstead told me via e-mail. “The London subway bombings were an anomaly. My guess is that most of these ‘agencies’ fall into the fly-by-night category. If an amateur truly has a remarkable photograph, they can sell it through existing agency channels. There is still a qualitative difference between a professional photojournalist and a ‘citizen photographer.’ Let me put it another way: Would I as the owner of a newspaper, magazine or agency get rid of my staff or contract photographers, and run an ad saying ‘we need your photos’?”

Of course, the livelihoods of professional photojournalists have been endangered for some time, as media companies have restricted photogs’ rights to resell photos and have hired young replacements who will work for less. The move to cheaper citizen photographers by media outlets could be another threat to pros.

Award-winning photojournalist Donald Winslow, now the editor of News Photographer magazine, saw the push into citizen photos as another way media outlets will cut costs.

“Yes, it’s part of the continued ‘devaluization’ of photojournalism — where today everyone’s a photographer, and everyone’s fairly technically proficient thanks to advanced cameras that let a 5-year-old make technically sophisticated images,” Winslow told me via e-mail. “When people start looking for avenues to get a product for free that previously was part of the annual capital budget, that’s not a good future indicator for the well-being of photojournalism as a paid profession. … If people don’t want to pay for photography in the physical world, there’s no motivation for them to pay for pictures in the virtual world either.”

At this early stage, it’s hard to tell who’s exploiting whom for profit. Cell Journalist’s Polidor pitches his service as a way for amateurs to get paid for photos that they’re currently giving away for free to citizen journalism sites at MSNBC, CNN and the BBC.

“We’re trying to change the mindset, change the perception for people that there is value in these images — and they don’t have to be exploited by the media any longer,” Polidor said. “They can actually get money for these images, and it’s what they should do. They shouldn’t send those images in for free.”

That might be true for the really valuable newsworthy photos, but is Cell Journalist really paying photographers fairly at $50 per usage? Spy Media’s Bryan Quinn was upfront in telling me that he saw his service as a way for Big Media to save money on photos that are underpriced by amateurs.

“[A media outlet] can go to these [photo agencies] that have been around years and years and years, and you can pay $1,000 for the photo, or you can go to Spy Media, and find a photo that’s exactly the same for $40,” Quinn said. “Because most of the images we’ve had that were newsworthy, I looked and the guy was only selling it for $55. And I go onto another site and price out what a similar photo is worth and it’s $450. So newspapers can save a lot of money, and this is at a time when newspapers are coming under a crunch for the money they’re spending.”

Verifying photos and promoting good citizenship

Even if these startups can make citizen photo agencies into viable businesses, they still will have to deal with a grab-bag of ethical issues, from verifying that the photos are real to making sure they don’t promote paparazzi-like behavior and snooping.

Charlie Tillinghast, president of, told me he thought traditional photo agencies could likely handle newsworthy photos shot by amateurs. But he said the new crop of citizen photo agencies might provide a worthy service if they could take on the expense of vetting citizen photos and filtering through the plethora of images — and find the gems.

“For us the value-add isn’t so much that they have photos taken by amateurs, because we could put a note on our website and get tons of that,” Tillinghast said. “It’s the fact that they’ve already filtered through them all, put them in the database. We expect them to vouch for their authenticity [and] provide a certain safety net for us.”

Tillinghast said was already stung by publishing a photo of an early summer hurricane submitted by a citizen photog. It turned out the image was shot in a different place and by a professional photographer under contract with the site. “If you have an agency that can take the risk away, then you have something,” he said. Still, Tillinghast was doubtful the nascent services could make themselves known enough so amateur shooters would contact them with the hot photo of the moment.

As for filtering, Scoopt’s MacRae says each image is vetted by actual humans, who then grade the image internally on its newsworthiness. He believes the filtering method is scalable to large quantities of images, but only if the citizen photogs limit submissions to newsworthy photos and Scoopt has enough staff to monitor the photo flow.

All three sites have online terms of service that ask photographers to respect the privacy of subjects and not to break the law in obtaining images. But Cell Journalist’s Polidor thinks just the name of his competitor, Spy Media, sends the wrong message.

“I wonder about Spy Media, what their intent is,” Polidor said. “The idea of Spy Media is that someone gets in your face, and their slogan is ‘It pays to spy.’ I don’t want their name and slogan to taint this new emerging citizen journalism field. … We are not encouraging anybody to spy on celebrities. What it comes down to is an expectation of privacy. There is no privacy once someone comes out of the club.”

Spy Media’s Quinn said the site wouldn’t tolerate citizen photogs who break laws to get photos, and wouldn’t run pornographic images. However, graphic bloody images might be acceptable if they’re newsworthy, he said. The litmus test is whether there’s news relevance and the photo was shot in a legal fashion.

“They can’t break into Britney Spears’ backyard and take a photo of her sunbathing,” he said. “We’re going to remove the photos and your user name forever. We’re not going to allow you to sell on our site if you’re breaking the law or copyright laws. … If a celebrity is walking down the street and trips and falls, then that’s news. If it’s newsworthy, and the photo was taken legally, we’re going to allow it on our site.”

* * *

The Basics on Citizen Photo Agencies

A look at the basic details of the three startups so far.


Location: Glasgow, Scotland

Number of registered photographers: More than 3,000

How it pays: 50/50 split for each sale of photos

Cost to photographer: Free

What rights it takes: Varies according to photo quality. If site thinks photo is newsworthy, it takes three-month exclusive license to sell; otherwise, it only takes non-exclusive contract and photo owner can post or sell elsewhere.

Cell Journalist

Location: Nashville, Tenn.

Number of registered photographers: Several hundred

How it pays: $50 flat fee for each sale

Cost to photographer: Free

What rights it takes: 96-hour exclusive license, then becomes non-exclusive so owner can sell or post.

Spy Media

Location: San Jose, Calif.

Number of registered photographers: More than 1,000

How it pays: Photographer sets price; site takes 35 percent cut of each sale.

Cost to photographer: Free until Nov. 1 launch; then likely to be $1 per photo.

What rights it takes: None; photographer decides what rights each buyer of photo gets.

Source: Scoopt, Cell Journalist, Spy Media.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. JaK bOUMANS says:

    This is IMHO a regular discussion true for print as well as online. When the Dutch movie maker Theo van Gogh was slaughtered, one of the first photographs was taken by someone with mobile camera. The picture was professionally definitely not the best one, but it was good enough to be printed in the largest Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. It is not the quality that matters but the news currency.

  2. This will be interesting to watch the development. I remember when point-and-shoot cameras became popular, I commented then that with those cameras, everybody will think themsleves a photojournalist. Digital imaging is just the next iteration. As we all know, the “proof is in the pudding.” Just because someone can snap a photo on their phone doesn’t necessarily make it a good photo.

    When I look upon the legions of citizen journalists (and now citizen photojournalists)the words of a colleague come to mind; “Just because you can, doesn’t necessarily mean you should.”

  3. It’s a fine endevour to arm cell photographers and help them to graduate in mainstream photography with digital compact camera or SLR pro cameras so that they learn their flaws and also become more professional than petty ameuters.

  4. Great piece, Mark.

    One thing I’d like to throw into the mix, if I may, is this. It is often assumed that there is a finite ‘pot’ of news out there, that amateurs and professionals will inevitably supply the same material, and that buyers will have to choose between quality and price. But is this really the case? How many local and regional stories occur in every corner of the world every single day and go unreported simply because there are no photographs?

    One small example. A couple of weeks ago, a call centre worker who had been sacked the previous day showed up at his old workplace to stage a naked protest on top of the bike shed. A Scoopt member who happened to work at the call centre did precisely the right thing, which is to say he dashed outside and shot a picture on his camera phone just seconds before police removed the man from the roof. Big news? Not remotely! But it WAS newsworthy at the local level. We verified the story – we spoke to the photographer, the call centre and the police – and sold the picture to the local newspaper. The paper paid a professional rate for the pic and ran the story. No competition there between press and public.

    From our perspective, that’s what ‘citizen journalism’ is all about. Going forward, many or maybe even most events that we consider newsworthy at some level will be photographed ONLY by members of the public. Indeed, the ready supply of amateur material may well change our definition of what we consider to be ‘newsworthy’. When mainstream news coverage is no longer dictated soley by events that the media selects to cover (because it can) but includes more of what actually happens in the real world, then we’ll have moved on.